The distance from Senegal’s bustling capital Dakar to the rural community of Taiba N’Diaye is around 90 kilometres. On a good day, the journey north east takes two to three hours, though traffic often slows this down.
“I remember calculating that if we set off with our convoy of wind turbines at 10pm, they should arrive by 6 the next morning”, says Massaer Cisse, General Manager of Lekela Senegal. “The traffic would be quieter, so even with these massive trucks driving through Dakar and into the countryside, we’d arrive in good time.”
By 11am the next day Cisse, sitting in the convoy, was getting nervous. “We still hadn’t arrived in Taiba N’Diaye. I was starting to worry as we’d missed our agreed window to use the roads”.
If you live in a country like the UK, lorries carrying wind turbine blades and shafts have become a common sight in recent years. They are the primary parts of the hundreds of wind farms springing up globally, especially in Europe and North America.
If you live in Senegal and happened to be on the route between Dakar and Taiba N’Diaye that day in 2019 however, it’s likely that was the first time you’d ever seen one of these giant 61.7m blades.
After another couple of hours on the road, Cisse and his trucks did arrive. The turbine parts delivered that day would go on to form part of a landmark clean energy project in West Africa. But the delays en route were one of many examples of the challenge of building this first-of-its-kind project.
Until now, Senegal has never built and connected a wind farm to its electricity grid. Nowhere in West Africa has. The country has relied on importing and burning fossil fuels – oil, coal and gas – to power its growing appetite for electricity.
Now, as part of the Government’s “Plan Sénégal Émergent”, a small number of companies are working with the Government and the state utility Senelec to introduce renewable energy to the grid.
This is the story of how we – Lekela – made our contribution, by building Senegal’s first ever wind farm, and West Africa’s largest.
Bringing new ideas to Senegal
To build wind farms in Africa you need “the spirit of an adventurer”, says Lekela CEO Chris Antonopoulos. “Renewable energy is appealing to African countries”, he explains. Why? “Because it’s cheap and it’s clean”.
But renewables are still a relatively new idea for the continent, especially outside South Africa and Egypt. That means that as well as building the wind farm, you need to explain the benefits of renewables, says Antonopoulos. Often, new regulations and procedures need to be created and the electricity system adapted, ready to accept renewable forms of energy.
Given these hurdles, the idea to build a 158-megawatt wind farm that would provide power for over 2 million Senegalese goes back a surprisingly long way.
Parc Eolien Taiba N’Diaye (PETN) to give the wind farm its full name, was conceived a decade ago. However, only limited progress had been possible by the time Lekela won the development rights in 2016.
In Antonopoulos’ view though, all the key ingredients for success were present. “There were agreements in place with 400 farmers that worked on site, support from everyone from President Macky Sall down to the local community, and most crucially a real need for renewable power.”
However, even with these favourable conditions in place, it took four years of hard work to take the project from the drawing board to full operation.
From farmland to wind farm
What’s it like, turning an area of rural farmland into a state-of-the-art wind farm?
“Exhausting”, jokes Chris Ford, who joined Lekela as Chief Operating Officer in late 2016 shortly after the company had taken over PETN. “No one had done this in Senegal before and we still had lots to do to secure financing and conclude arrangements with the construction contractor”.
Much of this early work was done centrally from London, but Ford and others quickly realised they would need to build a team on the ground.
To that end, Cisse was recruited as General Manager for Senegal. He joined in 2018 and was familiar with the project having worked on it in his previous role at Deloitte. “We might have been better off calling it Project Challenge”, he laughs.
With the team expanding both in Dakar and in London, progress started to come together. A key moment for any wind farm is reaching ‘financial close’, where agreements are struck with lenders to finance construction of the project. For PETN, this happened in July 2018. “It was a major milestone for us”, remembers Ford. “One of the first big steps to getting PETN built”.
Next came preparation of the site. “We had to go in and build roads, infrastructure, everything we’d need really”, says Cisse.
This phase also led to the project’s first unexpected benefit. Local farmers, who had always produced a range of fresh produce, suddenly had a quicker, more efficient transport network to deliver their goods to market.
After site preparation it was time for delivery of the turbines, trucked one-by-one up the roads from the port of Dakar, including that first nerve-wracking overnight shipment.
“Seeing the first turbines go up was a huge moment” says Cisse. It had taken just seven months from groundbreaking at the site to reach this point. “Then to see them start spinning for the first time a few months later, it was fantastic”. Here was the proof that PETN could provide Senegal with clean power.
Working with the community
While construction progressed, the other key element of Lekela’s work was also underway: building a programme of community investment. With every Lekela wind farm, a long-term investment plan is put in place to make sure the local community benefits in a sustained way from the project’s presence.
“This is about more than just building a wind farm to supply electricity”, explains Jennifer Boca, Lekela’s Head of ESG. “We invest in a number of schemes that will be around for decades. We avoid quick wins and plan long-term”.
Boca first visited Taiba N’Diaye in 2016 and recalls being met with “a thriving community”. Her first trip was about fact-finding, talking to community leaders about Taiba’s history, its strengths, and its challenges.
On a tour of the community, she stopped by the roadside where many of Taiba’s women sold produce from the nearby fields. Unprotected from the elements, crowded with people and animals, Boca saw they needed a better place to trade. “The local Women’s Association were very clear that a marketplace was needed. It would make selling fresh fruit and vegetables much cleaner and safer.”
Boca explains how this fitted with Lekela’s approach to build on what’s already being done in the community. “We’ve always said our approach is about the three E’s of entrepreneurship, education and the environment. The Taiba Women’s Association knew what was needed to support long-term entrepreneurship. We brought the funding and project management to make it happen.”
The new marketplace opened in November 2019. To support it, Taiba’s female traders had formed an organisation to maintain the new facility. “You could see they were empowered. They organised everything and the place was thriving”, Boca adds.
Boca fondly remembers being in Taiba N’Diaye to inaugurate the marketplace, when she was surprised by gifts and a large party to welcome her to the community. This act of kindness stood out and explains why she feels privileged to work on PETN. For first-time visitors to the village, she has a recommendation on what to buy – “for me it’s the mangoes, every time.”
Those mangoes are the focus of another project underway. For every mango tree removed to make way for one of the wind turbines, two higher-yielding trees have been planted. A scheme to cultivate market gardens has also now begun with the first crop harvested late in 2020.
Meanwhile, the marketplace was followed in February 2020 by a new IT centre for schoolchildren.
“The Taiba community has been behind us from the very beginning”, says General Manager Cisse.
“The way we’ve involved them in each step of planning and construction, combined with the 20-year community investment programme, is why we have the relationship we do”.
From presidential visits to pandemics
In February 2020, President Macky Sall visited Parc Eolien Taiba N’Diaye for the official inauguration of the wind farm. This marked the beginning of commercial operations with 16 of the 46 turbines providing electricity to the grid.
The project is a major achievement for the Government and for Senelec, Senegal’s national electricity company. It’s the result of great collaboration and partnership between Senelec and Lekela, made possible through the support of the State of Senegal and local authorities.
From Ford’s perspective, this was the moment to reflect on what had been achieved. “Being there, seeing the whole community turn out for that event, it really brought it to life”, he recalls.
Few suspected what would happen next of course, as the coronavirus pandemic struck and threatened lives and livelihoods across the world. The Taiba community was no different.
Cisse, Boca and the team were given a “heads up” as the disease hit other countries before it reached Senegal. They used this time to plan how to support the local response, helping to stock clinics, provide personal protective equipment (PPE) and spread awareness through publicity drives.
Boca remembers being “very worried about the most vulnerable households”. Due to Lekela’s closeness to the community, the team were able to coordinate with the local authorities to ensure those households received food parcels, something that continues
to this day.
“It was all consuming in the first few months”, remembers Cisse. However, the project showed its resilience and neither construction nor operations stopped. The decision to hire and train a majority Senegalese workforce was a major reason for this he believes.
Ford says it may seem “strange” to pick coronavirus as a point of pride, but it showed the strength and spirit of Lekela in overcoming another unknown.
The impact of wind power in West Africa
Wind turbines built
Uplift to Senegal’s electricity capacity
Tonnes of carbon dioxide saved
Today, Parc Eolien Taiba N’Diaye is nearly complete. The final phase of the project is nearing operating when all 46 wind turbines will generate electricity for the grid. That will mean a 15% uplift to Senegal’s electricity capacity. It will also avoid the release of 300,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, doing its part to help in the fight against climate change.
For Cisse, his three years since joining Lekela “have felt like ten in terms of excitement and effort”. A recent phone call from a friend who had arrived in Dakar by plane relayed excitedly to Cisse how “he could see the wind farm during the descent into the city. We’ve created something that’s part of the national identity”.
With the end of 2020 coinciding with the project moving into full operations, the key people involved in PETN have spent more time looking forward than back. While the construction phase might provide the most intense action, the operations phase is when all the hard work really starts to pay off.
The electricity provided to 2 million Senegalese from Taiba won’t just help the economy grow, but also be essential to improving people’s daily lives. A recent grant from the US Development Agency will also explore the idea of adding a large battery to the site. This would provide support services to the grid system and enable electricity to be stored and utilised later when it is not needed in the moment.
PETN is likely to have an impact beyond Senegal too, serving as a template for other countries in West Africa. Already, Lekela has received requests from every country in the region to visit the site. Power experts from Ghana previously travelled to another Lekela wind farm in South Africa as well, eager to learn about integrating renewables onto the grid.
For Antonopoulos, these wider effects are just as exciting as the power generated from PETN itself. “Taiba is like a lighthouse now, out there for others to proudly copy. I wouldn’t mind seeing several more like it in a few years’ time, dotted right across West Africa”.